- The ubiquity of cement and concrete products necessitates technological solutions to help the industry reduce its carbon footprint.
- With increased focus on curbing climate change, the concrete industry is being pushed to adopt more technologies.
- Government can play a significant role in encouraging technology adoption throughout heavy industry by way of legislation and incentives.
The Prime Minister and other political leaders in Canada have a significant role to play in decarbonizing heavy industries. The government should implement a country-wide initiative to incentivize adoption of technologies that can often be found in our own backyard.
What are the sustainability challenges being faced by Canada, especially in concrete production and usage?
The sustainability challenges with concrete we are facing in Canada are also a global challenge. Concrete is the most popular building material on the planet. There are around 20 billion tons of concrete being used everywhere, every year. This is a highly versatile material and the most popular construction material on the planet. It is also the most produced man-made product in the world.
“Cement accounts for approximately 8% of global GHG emissions. If concrete were a country, it would rank third in GHG emissions behind China and the US.”
Cement is a powder and concrete is a cake. Flour is the main ingredient of a cake in the same way that cement is the backbone of concrete. However, cement is a component that creates significant global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Cement accounts for approximately 8% of global GHG emissions. If concrete were a country, it would rank third in GHG emissions behind China and the US. At the same time, it is one of the most versatile building materials on the planet and will continue to be used around the world. There is no better alternative at the moment.
After water, concrete is the most consumed product on the planet. Concrete is produced at the same rate it is being used for construction projects. One cubic metre of concrete is produced annually for every human being on the planet.
What are the solutions and technologies that exist in the concrete industry to lower GHG emissions?
There is great research being done to lower GHG emissions of concrete in Canada, the US, and globally. The more traditional, less technology-driven ways include replacing cement with other materials, called supplementary cementitious materials (SCM). These solutions, which have been around for 30 years, have resulted in a significant reduction of cement usage in concrete. That is more from a material perspective.
In the past few years, advancements in technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), sensor measurement, connected job sites, connected vehicles, and telecommunication and mobile connectivity, have created opportunities for companies like Giatec to leverage technologies to address this problem. Technology can help us increase productivity or efficiency of concrete mixes.
“SmartMix reduces cement usage and CO2 emissions in concrete up to 20% by optimizing a mix based on specific applications.”
Giatec has developed an AI engine called SmartMix, which is able to essentially write a recipe for concrete production by leveraging data gathered from our SmartRock. SmartMix reduces cement usage and CO2 emissions in concrete up to 20% by optimizing a mix based on specific applications. Traditional material replacement processes are based on educated guesses because concrete can have different textures, properties, and characteristics for different applications such as high-rise or driveway construction. There are different types of concrete, and the recipe for each type, which is called a mixture design, varies from application to application. Our AI engine can leverage data to provide a recipe for each application, using the minimum dosage of cement required to meet the specifications of the project.
“Technological solutions for the concrete industry have the potential to cut back 400 million tons annually of GHG emissions on the planet. “
This is all in real time. There are many factors that affect a recipe, from the quality of raw materials, to weather condition, delivery time, etc. Depending on these factors, a concrete mix will have different properties. SmartMix is able to take all this into account in real-time. Technological solutions for the concrete industry have the potential to cut back 400 million tons annually of GHG emissions on the planet.
Is the concrete industry receptive to technological disruption?
Most cleantech typically comes with extra costs, which is a barrier against the adoption of technologies in different sectors. However, in our business model, you are saving on cement usage and thus saving costs. Cement is the most expensive component of concrete. Thirty percent to 40% of the cost of concrete comes from cement. Every bag of cement saved will be a huge addition to a concrete producer’s bottom line. n
The industry as a whole has been very conservative and as a result, very behind in terms of technology adoption. The concrete production sector has not advanced significantly in terms of product efficiency because of a lack of technology adoption. However, it is changing. There is a labour shortage in construction, especially in North America. The workers who left the industry in 2008 after the recession never went back to this industry. As a result, the industry has to become more attractive by using more advanced technologies, which bring in younger workers. Furthermore, to reduce the dependency on a human workforce and increase their efficiency, the concrete industry has become more open to technology adoption.
“The concrete industry is seeing pressure from the government, market, and end-user, so there is a huge movement to reduce their carbon footprint.”
The other factor for change is climate change. The concrete industry is seeing pressure from the government, market, and end-user, so there is a huge movement to reduce their carbon footprint. Especially with the election of Joe Biden, there is more acceleration of adoption of technology in the North American market.
Content continues below ↓
What needs to be done by key stakeholders to help decarbonize the concrete industry?
Government can play a big role and significantly impact the progress of decarbonizing the cement industry. Government has a lot of influence in construction as they have invested a lot in that industry from a public works perspective. They have lots of power in this industry to demand more green solutions and lower carbon footprints. They can also make a huge difference from a legislation perspective. There is a movement at the provincial level in British Columbia where they now introduce a carbon tax of $50 per tonne. Making it more expensive will bring more awareness around the usage of cement and encourage the industry to adopt technology that reduces its usage.
“The concrete industry can currently use their technology adoption as a competitive differentiator.”
Industries must continue to prioritize sustainable solutions for their business operations. Google is a good example. They are demanding significantly low-carbon-content concrete in their own projects, such as for the YouTube complex they are building. Every industry player has some role to play and the concrete industry can currently use their technology adoption as a competitive differentiator. Right now, technology adoption is a differentiator but soon it will become a standard. If businesses do not embrace technology, they may go out of business.
Other players include building owners and developers. They can choose contractors who use greener solutions compared to the status quo. They can play some role to push for technology adoption so that it becomes the standard. Every stakeholder has some role to play but we need to be more demanding. The good news is that there are lots of solutions.
What does the future look like for the construction industry?
There are some alternative materials for concrete such as steel, wood, and polymers, but there have been barriers in the last 50 years to have these alternatives fully adopted in the construction industry. Concrete is available everywhere—you can make cement easily as the raw minerals are available everywhere on the planet and are cheap compared to other organic materials. Concrete will not disappear. My dream is to see carbon-neutral concrete so that we can achieve a net-zero outcome. Over the next 50 years, technology will continue to evolve and help bring concrete closer to net-zero emissions. We are going to get very close and will be able to significantly minimize the negative impact of concrete on the planet.
“There is a huge market pull for construction companies to adopt technology so people joining their workforce do not see them as a construction company but a tech company.“
Young people want to work in an area that is tech-driven. They are all so connected today that their expectations are very high in terms of tools and software. They are not satisfied with traditional workplaces anymore. This is why there is a huge market pull for construction companies to adopt technology so people joining their workforce do not see them as a construction company but a tech company. Technology makes companies more attractive for hiring, especially for the younger generation.
Who and what would you pitch in 30 seconds to help decarbonize concrete and heavy industry in Canada?
I would pitch to the Prime Minister and other political leaders to remind them that they have a significant role to play. I would urge the government to look at the technology that has been developed in their own backyard and push for a country-wide initiative to incentivize embracing these technologies quickly. We have the technology and ability to help decarbonize the industry; we just need wider adoption to make it happen.